Beginning last year, March 29 has been set aside as a national commemorative holiday in the United States to honor those who served in the Vietnam War as well as their families. It is called National Vietnam War Veterans Day. This year’s celebration will be the second since the holiday was instituted by President Donald J. Trump in 2017. It is also a day to remember the men and women who returned home from that war and who did not receive a proper welcome home.
As a Vietnam veteran, this holiday’s greatest meaning and purpose for me is to remember those who did not get to come home, who fell in Vietnam as teenagers and early twenty-somethings. While we Vietnam veterans much appreciate the fact that a day has been set aside to honor the men and women who served and sacrificed so much during that long and costly war, those of us who held our brothers in our arms as they died want — more than anything — that they be remembered by the nation.
To us, it is our brothers who died over there that are our heroes. They gave their all, if not for a popular cause, they did so for those of us who fought alongside them in the terrible heat of battle. Their deaths and our coming home are inexorably tied together. We bear the weight of their names, their faces, and their memories with us, even now these five decades later. We who came home took a duty upon ourselves, that is, to keep their memories alive and to honor their heroism and sacrifices with our own lives lived well.
Yesterday morning, the eve of the National Vietnam Veterans Day, I was privileged to attend a small ceremony with some other Vietnam veterans and friends in honor of a Marine who was killed in action on March 27, 1968. We were there to help our friend, Michael Reagan, honor his fallen friend and Marine brother, Pedor Armstrong. I have written about Michael Reagan and his Fallen Heroes Project in the past. Reagan was an 0311 rifleman with Kilo Co. 3rd Battalion 4th Marine Regiment in 1967-68. He had spent most of his time in country up near the DMZ at a place called Con Tien, also known as the Hill of Angels among Marines. They fought fiercely and lost many Marines during that time. After the siege Reagan’s unit was moved back to a “safer” place at Cam Lo. But it was there, on March 27, 1968 that he lost two of his best friends, Vincent Santaniello and Peder Armstrong.
Reagan has dealt with his demons and the loss of his friends by starting the Fallen Heroes Project. Vincent Santaniello was the first portrait he did. To date he has drawn over 5,000 portraits of those who have fallen in our wars. You can see what he does by visiting his website or on his Facebook page.
Those of us who came home from the war did so to a nation that was severely divided. Many of us were not only not welcomed home, but we came home to a nation where many hated and reviled us for our participation in the war. The emotions were so high among those who were against the war that they were, at that time, unable to separate the warriors from the war, or from the hot political issues of those times. When we came home our hearts were already burdened with the weight of grief from the loss of so many of our dearest friends. Our bodies bore the scars of war, and our souls were deeply wounded by the things we saw and did.
The way many of us were treated on our returns forced us to keep that weight and those wounds locked up inside. Those who were against us didn’t care and, of course, not even our families and friends could really understand what we bore within us, or why we reacted the ways we did under stressful circumstances. Many of us, therefore, learned very quickly to become silent about our service and just moved on with our lives. Some of us did better at this than others.
If those of us who came home are thought of as heroes now, we know that our heroism was not that which we won on the fields of battle. Our heroism was won by taking on the duties and responsibilities of the rest of our lucky lives. Vietnam veterans can be proud of the contributions we have made in so many small and large ways. Michael Reagan has found profound meaning and purpose in his Fallen Heroes Project. I was lucky to be given the opportunity to write for the Veterans Site, which has helped me to smooth the edges of my own memories and to make a contribution to veterans at the same time. There are millions of individual stories that can be told. Maybe, if you know a Vietnam veteran you could listen to one of those powerful stories this holiday. All of us are at retirement age at this stage of our lives and now we are watching our brother Vietnam veterans passing away around us.
This Vietnam Veterans Day holiday is dedicated to commemorating the sacrifices that our families made during that war and after as well. The Gold Star Families, those who lost sons and daughters in Vietnam, must be remembered for their ultimate sacrifices. We honor them most by remembering their sons and daughters by keeping them in our thoughts and prayers, or by visiting their sons and daughter where they are buried and spending time and thought and prayer with them.
We remember, too, the families who welcomed us home, who dealt with our mood swings, our tears, and crazy reactions, and loved us back into “the world” with their never-ending care and love. We remember our spouses who fell in love with us despite our baggage and who saw the better angels in us and brought them out of us with their unconditional love for us.
We Vietnam veterans are honored to have a day set aside in our memory, but our deepest honor would be that the country remembers the 58,318 names that are inscribed on the black granite face of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. They are the real heroes, those who gave their last full measure to defend the Constitution and the freedoms it represents for all Americans.